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Nightmare on 42nd Street: the story of the most disastrous opening night in Broadway history

Dancers perform in the 2001 Broadway revival of 42nd Street
Dancers perform in the 2001 Broadway revival of 42nd Street Credit: Handout

On the night of August 25, 1980, the legendary Broadway producer David Merrick emerged blinking on to the stage of the Winter Garden theatre in Manhattan. Seconds earlier, his feel-good production of 42nd Street directed and choreographed by Gower Champion, had had its world premiere, culminating in 11 wildly enthusiastic curtain-calls. Indeed, the applause was only just dying down as he stepped up to speak.

“This is tragic,” intoned Merrick, who had made his name producing some of the most popular musicals of the era, among them Gypsy and Hello, Dolly! The audience, still giddy with euphoria inspired by this all-singing story of a young chorus girl catapulted to stardom, thought he was joking – and laughed. “You don’t understand,” he continued, “Gower Champion is dead.”

Somebody screamed. As the curtain fell, there were tears and shocked faces on both sides of the footlights. Champion had...

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